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Combat For Women — Is This What Equality Looks Like?


I saw GI Jane in a San Francisco theater the week it opened in 1997. The place was packed. When Demi Moore shaved her head, the place erupted in a chaos of cheers and I was not sitting on my hands. Later on in the film, when Viggo Mortensen’s character beats her up, I found myself clapping and yelling along with everyone else as Demi Moore started landing some hits of her own.

As the lights came up at the end, I was so taken by Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil that if the Navy Seals had been taking names out front, I might have just put my pacifist Jane Addams (as opposed to John Hancock) on the list.

I was reminded how easily I succumbed to pro-war agitprop when Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that women would now be able to serve in combat roles in all of the military services. By 2016, 230,000 positions within the military (in infantry, artillery and other hardcore, hot seat, heavy duty spots) will be open to women.

Panetta, who is stepping down from the Pentagon’s top post any day now and handing the reins over to Chuck Hagel (assuming the Nebraska Senator can get through committee), told reporters that one of his priorities as Secretary of Defense “has been to remove as many barriers as possible for dedicated and qualified people to be able to serve their country in uniform.”

This move will make it easier for women to climb the chain of command, get recognition and benefits for hazard positions and makes policy of what is already happening in practice. I was shocked by the number of women who have served and been wounded and killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years. More than 280,000 women have served in the military in war zones since 2003, 152 have been killed and nearly 1,000 injured. Women have won Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars and Silver Stars for acts under direct combat conditions.

The New York Times profiled Air Force Staff Sergeant Stacy Pearsall, who was attached to an Army unit in Iraq. Her official job description? Photographer. But she was on patrol just about every day, suited up in heavy body armor, carrying heavy gear, being fired on and firing back. And she carried camera equipment and took photos. She was wounded and saved someone’s life. Reflecting on that experience, she told the Times, “I didn’t sit around thinking: ‘I’m a woman, I don’t think I can carry this gun,’… And I can’t speak for the men, but I feel that when the bullets were flying, they didn’t care that I was a woman, as long as I was pulling the trigger.”

Didn’t care if she was a woman? That may be so. A lot of the discussion around Panetta’s announcement focuses on questions like: Can women do as many push-ups and pull-ups as men? Won’t women be grossed out by men’s dirty socks and underpants and general lack of hygiene out on the battlefield? Won’t men be distracted by their natural chivalrous impulses during firefights? But, these questions are only a small part of the reality for women in the military.

More than half the women serving in the military currently are mothers. Not just that, many are primary care-givers and more than a third are single moms — meaning that when mommy is off to war the kids stay with extended families, go to estranged or divorced fathers, or end up in foster care. Women who serve, fight, kill, injure, and risk death and injury while in the military are vulnerable to psychological damage. They are being diagnosed with PTSD and are attempting and committing suicide too. Just like military men, they have trouble reintegrating into civilian society — finding and keeping jobs, reconnecting with children and families, staying healthy and sober.

And even if they never face a harrowing combat experience like Staff Sergeant Pearsall, women in the military are in danger — not from insurgents in Iraq or the Taliban in Afghanistan, but from their fellow soldiers and airmen and Marines. As former California Rep. Jane Harman wrote a few years ago, “Women serving in the U.S. military are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq.” That is a terrible fact, especially given the drastic under-reporting of rapes and sexual violence within the military — the Department of Defense estimates that 80 percent of assaults are not reported. That is scary… and not all that surprising at the same time. If Leon Panetta wanted to leave a lasting legacy of equality within the military, he would declare zero tolerance for sexual violence within the military. He would prosecute perpetrators and protect women who speak out. That is real change that challenges a culture of militarism and machismo.

Women join the military for the same reasons men do — a steady paycheck, a position of respect, a sense of belonging, a chance to gain real skills, a quest for adventure. But once there, they must see others as the enemy; they must kill and injure and risk the same; they must contend with a culture of misogyny and risk serious trauma. I am all for women being equal — in the home, in the bedroom, in the workplace, on the street (my husband and I are equally unable to do a pull-up at this point). But on the battlefield? No. It is a tragedy that combat for women is being heralded as a step towards equality.

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